Confessions: My Father, Hummingbirds, and Frantz Fanon, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Every effort is made to bring the colonised person to admit
the inferiority of his culture
—Frantz Fanon

And there are days when storms hover
Over my house, their brooding just this side of rage,
An open hand about to slap a face. You won’t believe me

When I tell you it is not personal. It isn’t. It only feels
That way because the face is yours. So what if it is the only
Face you’ve got? Listen, a storm will grab the first thing
In its path, a Persian cat, a sixth grade boy on his way home
From school, an old woman watering her roses, a black
Man running down a street (late to a dinner with his wife),
A white guy buying cigarettes at the corner store. A storm
Will grab a young woman trying to escape her boyfriend,
A garbage can, a Mexican busboy with no papers, you.
We are all collateral damage for someone’s beautiful
Ideology, all of us inanimate in the face of the onslaught.
My father had the biggest hands I’ve ever seen. He never
Wore a wedding ring. Somehow, it would have looked lost,
Misplaced on his thick worker’s hands that were, to me,
As large as Africa. There have been a good many storms
In Africa over the centuries. One was called colonialism
(Though I confess to loving Tarzan as a boy).

In my thirties,
I read a book by Frantz Fanon. I fell in love
With the storms in his book even though they broke
My heart and made me want to scream. What good
Is screaming? Even a bad actress in a horror flick
Can do that. In my twenties, I had fallen in love
With the storms in the essays of James Baldwin.
They were like perfect poems. His friends called
Him Jimmy. People didn’t think he was beautiful.
Oh God, but he was. He could make a hand that was
Slapping you into something that was loving, loving you.
He could make rage sound elegant. Have you ever
Read “Stranger in the Village?” How would you like
To feel like a fucking storm every time someone looked
At you?

One time I was
At a party. Some guy asked me: What are you, anyway?
I downed my beer. Mexican I said. Really he said, Do
You play soccer? No I said but I drink Tequila. He smiled
At me, That’s cool. I smiled back So what are you?
What do you think I am he said. An asshole I said. People
Hate you when you’re right. Especially if you’re Mexican.
And every time I leave town, I pray that people will stop
Repeating You’re from El Paso with that same tone
Of voice they use when they see a rat running across
Their living rooms, interrupting their second glass
Of scotch. My father’s dead (Though sometimes I wake
And swear he has never been more alive—especially when
I see him staring back at me as I shave in the morning).
Even though I understand something about hating a man
I have never really understood the logic of slavery.
What do I know? I don’t particularly like the idea of cheap
Labor. I don’t like guns. And I don’t even believe
White men are superior. Do you? I wanted to be
St. Francis. I took this ambition very seriously. Instead
I wound up becoming a middle-aged man who dreams
Storms where all the animals wind up dead. It scares
Me to think I have this dream inside me. Still,
I love dogs—even mean ones. I could forgive
A dog that bit me. But if a man bit me, that would be
Another story. I have made my peace with cats.
I am especially in love with hummingbirds (though
They’re as mean as roosters in a cock fight). Have
You ever seen the storms in the eyes of men who
Were betting on a cock fight?

Last night, there was hail, thunder,
A tornado touching down in the desert—though I was
Away and was not a first hand witness. I was in another
Place, listening to the waves of the ocean crash against
The shore. Sometimes I think the sea is angry. Who
Can blame it? There are a million things to be angry
About. Have you noticed that some people don’t give
A damn and just keep on shopping? Doesn’t that make you
Angry? A storm is like God. You don’t have to see it
To believe—sometimes you just have to place
Your faith in it. When my father walked into a room
It felt like that. Like the crashing waves. You know,
Like a storm. This is the truth of the matter: I am
The son of a storm. Look, every one has to be the son
Of something. The thing to do when you are caught
In the middle of a storm is to abandon your car,
Keep quiet. Pray. Wait. Tell that to the men
Who were sleeping on the Arizona when
The Japanese dropped their bombs. War is the worst
Kind of storm. The truth is I have never met a breathing
Human being who did not have at least one scar
On his body. Bombs and bullets do more than leave
A permanent mark on the skin. I have never liked
The expression they were out for blood.

There are days
When there are so many storms hovering around
My house that I cannot even see the blue in the sky.
My father loved the sky. He was trying to memorize
The clouds before he died. I confess to being
Jealous of the sky.

On Sunday Mornings
I picture Frantz Fanon as an old man. He is looking up
At the pure African sky. He is trying to imagine how it appeared
Before the white men came. I don’t want to dream all the dead
Animals we have made extinct. I want to dream a sky
Full of hummingbirds. I would like to die in such a storm.

A Situation for Mrs. Biswas, by Prageeta Sharma

When I received the call I was in a store in Missoula, Montana.

A store stocked with sparkling ephemera: glass fauna, tiny belfry bulbs,

winter white birch and stump-lamps brandishing light cones,

little shelves and branches hung with drops of ice and round silver baubles.

I loved the store: it was cavernous, dark with wood and burlap,

a ruddy brick loft with lithographs and monographs on birds or bracelets.

The store-owner, Fran, was away that day otherwise
I would have stayed in there a little longer.

She was a comforting friend—
she had impeccable taste, manifested in her put-together garments,
she also had a warming patient smile.

I didn’t stay long, I didn’t linger;
though linger is absolutely the wrong word,
more like I didn’t stumble around there for hours.

(I would stumble around in that store for a full year.)

If she had been behind the counter I would have turned to her in bewilderment.

~

You see I had picked up my ringing cell phone while browsing
(I usually keep it off in stores),

and my father said, there’s something I have to tell you.
I don’t want you to find out any other way. I am leaving my job.
They want me to resign.

Fran had met my father the week before—
he wanted to see downtown, the campus, get to know Montana—
he had done research on the education opportunities.

He was interested in outreach.

People all over met him and found him to be a kindhearted man.

I had set up meetings, he was here to meet educators, mathematicians—
more spirited people—I told him—than Bostonians.

I told him the West was a magical place. He agreed.

Later he would tell me that this was his last best day, a strange pun on the Last Best Place.

Little did we know we would have to fight a very public battle.

And apparently from the rumors and from the strange
treatment he received prior to his termination,
there was a plot in place.

We, as a family, felt the public ridicule.

And as an Asian family, we felt the acute Asian shame. It was a dark,
disastrous cloud hanging, hanging, hanging.

My father would be would be publicly shamed
and we were shocked at the racist narratives—
allegations—a greedy brown man—

mismanaging, mismanaging, mismanaging

One public interest story to release venom—
to tease out real feelings from strangers.

Blog comments were aggressive: the Indian was a con,
a snake-oil man.

You just have to give them a scenario
in which they can invest—in which to place those hard-to-place feelings.
White people bury their resentments beneath their liberalism.

We knew he hadn’t done anything wrong—we knew this was bogus.

Like I said, I was getting ready for the holidays,
I played hooky that Tuesday excited to wrap gifts;
I wanted to decorate the house.

This was my first house.
My husband was out looking at Christmas trees.
Albeit I am a Hindu, trees are an awful lot of fun.

And this planning was quickly thwarted with the difficult—
my family was falling apart—
the droop in my life felt permanent.

I was more than 2,000 miles from my father, but the way he spoke
at the moment of the call becalmed me—
I felt anchored to his side—
I will stay there for as long as it takes.

Before this moment I was in a terrific mood.

I wanted to don the table
with the kind of candles that beckoned, pulling you into an aesthetic presence
fully-fabricated and lit, and yet looked like it came from snow.

I had been in Missoula for many months,
I had come from Brooklyn, where I had lived for twelve years.
Now I was ready to escape.

Having been born and raised outside of Boston,
without the opportunities say someone like Robert Lowell had.

I knew I was not of that ilk nor was my father—we now realize.

Boston was indeed for the rich—with its stodgy colonial identity,
with its ridiculous Brahmans—
its oddly cultureless stance
even with Harvard as its mirror.
(Even with Cal as front & center literati.)

Even so, I was pleased, I was unhurried in my new life, I was, I was.
I could feel how I stood, I could feel the rising happiness—of the belly, not the gut.

I was consumed with the bliss of poetry,
so much poetry around me, everything with poetry.

I said and understood, the workshop will be my ideology,
my intentional community, front and center—with bells.

My family was overjoyed with the way our lives
were working together—

my father was comfortable, my mother pleased,
a professorship and presidential position
at a college, he was the first South-Asian president.

He had come to America with very little and now had something.

As you can see, there is an immigrant narrative here.

When he first arrived, he made very little money as a visiting professor so he worked
security at night at the Museum of Fine Arts. He kept thinking his colleague, Bruce,
was calling him bastard, when he was calling him buster.

It took him months to realize this. He first had to confront Bruce.

The sequence of his first major purchases and acquisitions, which took several months:

a suitcase and a rug, then he found a dentist’s chair for the living room.

He bought the Bob Dylan album that had “Blowing in the Wind,” because it really
sounded Hindu—it sounded like it came from the Rig Veda.

For many years I would say he was a model minority—he aspired to being
rewarded for his good work by white people.

We agreed, all was well— I had made my way to where I had wanted to be,
living a poet’s life and it felt extraordinary—
all of the birch-stump lamps lighting up inside, this was a kind of bliss.

I had arrived where I loved in absolute terms.

Where I could love the poetics of if, then & thou. The luminous…

And yet poetry haunts with its suggestion that terrible things are true and stick, as Rilke says:

I am much too small in this world, yet not small enough/to be to you just object
and thing/dark and smart.

~

The sun was hidden behind the darkest cloud.

I said what is happening to my father?

In response, my husband’s back gave out,
he could not walk without whimpering, there was whimpering in the night

and I wasn’t sure which one of us it was.

What was happening to my ableness?

We had failure, heaps of failure in our hands.

The world had recast itself in such a way that I had to address the power behind it.

I kept saying strange things to people like no one is exempt from suffering.
I felt like a tiny bird with sinking feet.

There are assertions about difference
That I had not wanted to make in the past, but now did.

Where was I? Who was I?

My father was told he had to watch his back
and then they took everything away from him.

To take away his dignity with so many untruths. Do I have to watch my back too?

What did I think I could have? I wasn’t even sure if I had it here.
People hadn’t seen me as me, I started to feel it. Those glass birds

and the birch lamps were a kind of privilege
only others could have—not “others” in the sense in which I was other.

I started to see how money worked the room: when we had it, when we didn’t.

Imagine, we were so close
to the soaring sky, and imagine how we fell.
How we knew falling wouldn’t end us,

fall right here, fall right there, cry out, oh blustering self,
it can’t be as bad as you think.

I said let’s remember how to do it so it won’t hurt
this time or the next.

But I had to say the branches extended their arms,
there was a house attached to them—

we found ourselves languishing, then needing
to rebuild.

It was the turning of the year and then another one.

And the showy, extravagant people capped themselves
on the tops of mountain ash—

we came out to clear them away.